I won ‘The Gargoyle’ by Andrew Davidson in a giveaway hosted by Delia of Postcards from Asia. After reading Delia’s wonderful review of it, I couldn’t wait to read it. I started reading it a few days back and finished it a couple of days back. Here is what I think.
What I think
‘The Gargoyle’ is about a nameless narrator (I discovered to my surprise, and only accidentally, after finishing the book, that the narrator’s name was not revealed), who gets caught in an accident while he is driving and his car gets off the cliff. He suffers serious burns, but somehow survives and ends up in a hospital. He discovers that he has lost all his wonderful looks. He also loses most of his money for his medical treatment. He can’t imagine living again in the world. He decides to commit suicide after getting released from the hospital. When he is contemplating thus, a mysterious woman comes to his hospital room and befriends him. She says that her name is Marianne Engel and she was born in the 14th century, and that she fell in love with him then and she has been waiting for him to come back into her life. She tells him many medieval love stories set in different countries – in Italy, in Germany, in Japan, in Iceland. She also tells him her own story – how she grew up in a medieval monastery, how her talent for languages was identified and how she ended up working in the scriptorium and became a nun and how she met the narrator and how they fell in love and what happened after that. She also says that she is a sculptor now and she helps bring out gargoyles from stones when they cry out to her. All this puzzles our narrator. He thinks that Marianne might be having manic depression or schizophrenia. He asks the psychiatrist in the hospital about this, and the psychiatrist neither confirms nor denies it. But the narrator discovers that Marianne had been in the hospital for a brief while for psychiatric treatment. However, he goes along with her and Marianne spends time with him and makes him feel human and feel loved. Then the time comes for his discharge from the hospital. The doctor treating him wants him to join a facility which helps burn patients. But Marianne wants him to come and live with her. And she is adamant. Our narrator accepts Marianne’s offer and goes to live with her. Is Marianne really a sculptor? Is she really who she claims to be – a nun from the medieval age who has come back to claim her lost lover – or is she someone who is having psychiatric problems? What happens to the narrator’s and Marianne’s love for each other? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.
I loved ‘The Gargoyle’. Starting from the first sentence – “Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love” – the book gripped me and the pages turned on their own. I liked very much the main story – the story of the narrator and Marianne. I also liked very much the story arc involving Gregor Hnatiuk, the psychiatrist, and Sayuri Mizumoto, the physiotherapist. I also liked the medieval love stories that Marianne tells the narrator – the stories of Francesco and Graziana (my favourite love story in the book), Victoria and Tom, Sei and Heisaku (which has a very beautiful and poignant ending), Siguror Sigurosson and Einarr (a gay love story). The book also has a lot of interesting information on different topics – on burns and how people who are involved in burn accidents cope with them, on medieval monasteries, on Dante’s ‘Inferno’, on Japanese culture, on science and Galileo and how Galileo’s research into the physical properties of Hell led to real developments in modern Physics, on German mysticism in the medieval age. I loved these digressions. I also liked the narrator’s sense of humour, for example, in this snippet, where he is describing the food served at a party which Marianne organizes at the hospital – “spaghetti, fettuccini, macaroni, rigatoni, cannelloni, tortellini, guglielmo marconi (just checking to see if you’re still reading)” I was hoping that Marianne and the narrator will live happily ever after, but I was sad when I got to the end. It was beautifully, achingly sad, but it was also perfect – probably the only ending possible. I can’t wait to find out what Andrew Davidson will come up with, next.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
“Tell me why you like carving.”
“It’s backwards art. You end up with less than what you started with.”
The Art of Sculpting
“I absorb the dreams of the stone, and the gargoyles inside tell me what I need to do to free them. They reveal their faces and show me what I must take away to make them whole. When I have enough information, I begin. My body wakes but there is no sense of time, there’s nothing but the work. Days pass before I realize that I haven’t slept and I’ve barely eaten. It’s like I’m digging a survivor out from underneath the avalanche of time, which has been collecting for eons and all at once has come sliding down the mountain. The gargoyles have always been in the stone but, at this precise instant, it becomes unbearable for them to remain. They’ve been hibernating in the winter of the stone, and the spring is in my chisel. If I can carve away the right pieces the gargoyle comes forth like a flower out of a rocky embankment. I’m the only one who can do it, because I understand their languages and I’m the only one who can give them the hearts necessary to begin their new lives.”
Hells of different types
…Marianne Engel educated me on the Icelandic version of Hel. Apparently it is a place not of fire but of ice : while English speakers say that it’s “hot as Hell,” Icelanders say helkuldi, “cold as Hell.” This makes sense : having spent their entire lives hammered down by the frigid climate, how could they fear anything more than an eternal version of the same thing? For the burnt man, might I add, it is particularly attractive that the notion subverts the Judeo-Christian idea that the means of eternal torment must be fire.
That Hell is tailored to the individual is hardly a new idea. It is, in fact, one of the greatest artistic triumphs in Dante’s Inferno : the punishment for every sinner fits his sin.
The Paradox of Life
I was born beautiful and lived beautifully for thirty-plus years, and during all that time I never once allowed my soul to know love. My unblemished skin was numb armor used to attract women with its shininess, while repelling any true emotion and protecting the wearer. The most erotic of actions were merely technical : sex was mechanics, conquest a hobby; my body constantly used, but rarely enjoyed. In short, I was born with all the advantages that a monster never had, and I chose to disregard them all.
Now my armor had melted away and been replaced with a raw wound. The line of beauty that I had used to separate myself from people was gone, replaced by a new barrier – ugliness – that kept people away from me, whether I liked it or not. One might expect the result to be the same, but that was not entirely true. While I was now surrounded by far fewer people than before, they were far better people. When my former acquaintances took a quick glance at me in the burn ward before turning around to walk out, they left the door open for Marianne Engel. Nan Edwards, Gregor Hnatiuk, and Sayuri Mizumoto.
What an unexpected reversal of fate : only after my skin was burned away did I finally become able to feel. Only after I was born into physical repulsiveness did I come to glimpse the possibilities of the heart : I accepted this atrocious face and abominable body because they were forcing me to overcome the limitations of who I am, while my previous body allowed me to hide them.
I am no hero in soul and never will be, but I am better than I was. Or so I tell myself; and for now, that is enough.
I once knew a woman who liked to imagine Love in the guise of a sturdy dog, one that would always chase down the stick after it was thrown and return with his ears flopping around happily. Completely loyal, completely unconditional. And I laughed at her, because even I knew that love is not like that. Love is a delicate thing that needs to be cosseted and protected. Love is not robust and love is not unyielding. Love can crumble under a few harsh words, or be tossed away with a handful of careless actions. Love isn’t a steadfast dog at all; love is more like a pygmy mouse lemur…
Marianne Engel’s love for me seemed built on so flimsy a premise that I assumed it would come apart the moment we stepped through the hospital doors. How could a love based on a fictional past survive into an actual future? It was impossible. That kind of love was a thing to be snatched up and crushed in the jaws of real life.
That was my fear, but this Christmas Day had shown me that Marianne Engel’s love was not feeble. It was strapping, it was muscular, it was massive. I thought that it could fill only my room in the burn ward, but it filled the entire hospital. More important, her love was not reserved only for me; it was shared generously with strangers – people she didn’t think were friends from the fourteenth century.
All my life I had heard foolish stories about love : that the more you give away, the more you have. This had always struck me as nothing more than a violation of basic mathematical principles. But watching Marianne Engel share her love so widely awakened in me the weirdest of romantic feelings : the opposite of jealousy.
Have you read ‘The Gargoyle’? What do you think about it?